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Thaw Conservation Center

Jane Austen's Writing: A Technical Perspective

Read more: Intro | Pens and Ink | Papers | Watermarks | Glossary

Pens and Ink
Austen's letters and manuscripts were all written in her own hand, using a quill pen periodically recharged with ink from an inkwell. The quill pen, most often made from goose feathers, was in common use during Austen's life (1775–1817); the steel-nibbed pen was not mass produced until the 1830's. Contrary to later nineteenth-century depictions of quill pens as full-length, elegantly curved feathers, the barbs—the soft "feathery" part—were usually removed either partially or entirely as they served no function and interfered with the action of writing. The character of lines written with a quill pen differs from those produced using a metal-nibbed pen. Because the quill is more flexible and responsive to slight changes of pressure and is also less abrasive when dragged across the paper surface, lines written with a quill appear less confined, frequently tapering off into elegant and graceful filigree as the fine nib separates and is starved of ink.

As for ink, Austen used the most commonly available ink of the nineteenth century—iron gall ink. It is composed of tannin (gallic acid), iron sulfate (known as vitriol in the nineteenth century), gum arabic, and water. Because it is indelible, it was used for official documents from the Middle Ages onward. The ink is easy to make, inexpensive, and can be transported as a powder and mixed whenever needed. When first applied to paper, the ink appears pale gray; as it is exposed to air, the ink darkens to a rich blue-black tone. Eventually, most iron gall ink changes to a brown color, as is evident in Austen's letters and manuscripts. Depending upon their original formulation, these inks can become increasingly acidic and eventually damage the paper. Many of Austen's letters in the exhibition remain in excellent condition and do not suffer from iron gall ink damage. However, some are composed of acidic ink and others show signs of frequent handling (tears, creases, and breaks along the original folds). All of the Austen manuscripts and letters were carefully examined and, if necessary, stabilized in preparation for A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy.

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy exhibition page »

Read more: Intro | Pens and Ink | Papers | Watermarks | Glossary


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The programs of The Morgan Library & Museum are made possible with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.